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Ros Stephenson Helps Reboot UBS’s American M&A Franchise

As chair of the Swiss bank’s corporate client solutions group, the Wall Street veteran divides her time between management and client work.

Ros Stephenson planned to finish her career at Barclays, where she was the British firm’s chair of investment banking, but Andrea Orcel of UBS changed her mind. In May 2014, Barclays had announced a strategy to shrink its investment bank; rather than wait for that to play out, Stephenson left for a firm that had cut back almost two years earlier and is now rebuilding. Orcel, the boss of UBS’s investment bank, has been transforming the operation into a mergers and acquisitions advisory and capital markets powerhouse so it doesn’t have to rely on its balance sheet to win business.

“I spoke with Andrea and found we have a similar outlook — he is a strong manager who is also extremely client-centric,” says New York–based Stephenson, 52, who moved to UBS last September as global chair of its corporate client solutions group and head of the 700-strong CCS division for the Americas. Her marching orders: Spearhead the Swiss bank’s M&A revival in the U.S., where it’s been slipping. UBS fell six places, to 11th, for North American deal volume last year, according to Dealogic, with 69 transactions worth a total of $120.8 billion, down from $231 billion in 2013.

Stephenson belongs to a crack team of senior deal makers that the bank has assembled to provide M&A muscle even though it now has less firepower than its rivals, having dramatically reduced lending in 2012 in response to pressure from investors and shareholders to boost returns and capital. Orcel wants the U.K. native to divide her time between representing clients and managing UBS’s advisory and capital markets businesses — a job description she relishes.

“It’s hard to lead a team if you’re not a player-coach, so I constantly combine client work with management,” says Stephenson, a 20-year veteran of Lehman Brothers Holdings who helped steer the New York–based firm through its 2008 rescue by Barclays. “I grew up as an old-school banker, classically trained to help clients across the board rather than in a particular specialism.”

Born in Altrincham, a town outside Manchester, England, Stephenson always wanted to work in finance. After completing a degree in business administration at the University of Sheffield, the keen traveler went to Australia for a year before a friend helped her land a job as a financial analyst at broadcaster CBS in New York. Discovering that she liked deal making, Stephenson earned an MBA from New York University and moved to Wall Street in 1987 by joining Lehman Brothers as an associate. In 1989 she participated in what was then one of the biggest takeovers in U.S. corporate history, advising Time on its $14.9 billion merger with fellow U.S. media conglomerate Warner Communications.

Promoted to managing director in 1995, Stephenson launched Lehman’s financial sponsor coverage group a year later. She ran this private equity division for more than a decade, acting as the go-to banker for U.S. firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.; Warburg Pincus; Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe; and Jarden Corp., founded by consumer goods tycoon Martin Franklin.

This role gave Stephenson, who also sat on the investment committee of Lehman’s investment bank and served as global head of corporate finance at Barclays from 2008 to 2013, exposure to deals encompassing M&A, financing and initial public offerings across a wide range of sectors. She advised KKR on some of its largest leveraged buyouts, including the $25.6 billion takeover of U.S. payment technology provider First Data Corp. and the $7.3 billion purchase of Goodlettsville, Tennessee–based discount retailer Dollar General Corp., both in 2007.

She maintained those relationships at Barclays, helping establish the firm as the top U.S. underwriter on private equity–backed IPOs. In 2011 she worked on the $4.4 billion flotation of Nashville, Tennessee–headquartered HCA Holdings, the top U.S. private hospital operator, and the $3.3 billion debut of Texan energy giant Kinder Morgan. She also advised Jarden on its $1.74 billion acquisition of South Deerfield, Massachusetts–based Yankee Candle Co. in 2013.

Besides rebuilding UBS’s American investment banking franchise with hires that include ten new managing directors so far this year, Stephenson has used her private equity contacts to bring in the deals. In April she represented Iglo Foods Holdings, Europe’s largest frozen-food maker, on its €2.6 billion ($2.8 billion) sale to Nomad Holdings, a British Virgin Islands–incorporated bid vehicle set up a year ago by Franklin and Noam Gottesman, co-founder of U.K. hedge fund firm GLG Partners.

Investment banking head Orcel sees the new UBS as an old-style merchant bank, where trusted advice wins out; in the first quarter of this year, the firm jumped from eighth to fifth in the European M&A rankings, an improvement that Stephenson is looking to replicate in the U.S. But league tables aren’t the final word. “We’re focused on growth and profitability,” says Stephenson, who wants UBS to compete on deals where it can make a return.

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